The Danger of Trying On Atheism

The Danger of Trying On Atheism

A pastor decides to 'live as an atheist' for one year in the attempt to sort out anguishing questions. Dr. Craig has plenty to say about this methodology!


Transcript The Danger of Trying On Atheism

Kevin Harris: Thanks for joining us on Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I’m Kevin Harris. Dr. Craig, I found an interesting article in Christianity Today that I would like to run past you. It is called “The Problem With Trying On Atheism.”[1] Here it is. Laura Turner, the author of this article for Christianity Today, says,

Ryan Bell, a former adjunct professor at Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Seminary, announced that 2014 would be the year he tried atheism.

A Seventh-day Adventist, Bell resigned from a pastoral position months ago following outspoken criticism of a number of the church's stances, including its treatment of women. His work for peace and justice and interfaith dialogue “earned me rebuke and alienation from church administrators,” he writes for the Huffington Post. Bell's theological concerns led him to undertake a “year without God.” For 12 months, he writes:

I will live as if there is no God. I will not pray, read the Bible for inspiration . . . I will do whatever I can to enter the world of atheism and live, for a year, as an atheist. It's important to make the distinction that I am not an atheist. At least not yet. I am not sure what I am. That's part of what this year is about.

Bell's year without God raises plenty of questions. How does one try atheism on, as if it were no more than a pair of jeans to wriggle into? I applaud Bell's pursuit of truth here, though not his methodology. Every person should have the freedom and ability to seek out truth, so Bell's curiosity and honesty are commendable. But this notion that he can turn his faith off for one calendar year, then flip the switch back should he so desire strikes me as strange.

Strange indeed, Dr. Craig. Already I see a look on your face like this is highly problematic.

Dr. Craig: Oh, I think it is disastrous spiritually. But I wonder how he is going to live? A couple weeks ago we did a podcast on exploring the real consequences of an atheistic worldview and that, on atheism, things like civility, politeness, moral values, treating others honorable, marital fidelity are all illusions of human consciousness fogged onto us by the evolutionary process and social conditioning. I wonder what is Bell going to do? Is he going to also during this year quit working for peace and justice? Is he going to now no longer be concerned about the treatment of women – those issues that got him into trouble with his church? Just what does he think the consequences of atheism really are? Which ones is he going to try on? If he really comes to accept the view that atheism leads to the kind of moral nihilism that our other friend did, Bell is going to really have a disastrous year.

Kevin Harris: The author of this article for Christianity Today continues,

I love what Dallas Willard had to say about finding truth in the person of Jesus: “Indeed, no one can actually believe the truth about him without trusting him by intending to obey him. It is a mental impossibility.” Belief, in this case, is more than mere mental assent. So I wonder why Bell chose to turn to atheism rather than, say, a more progressive version of Christianity—especially when he is employed by so many Christian organizations.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, what’s disturbing about this is that this isn’t just some sort of experiment to try to identify with atheists in order to reach out to them and sympathize with them. This man is really uncertain about what he believes. He is in danger of being one more of these casualties who overreacts to what he perceives to be ill treatment by the church and then kicking away all the traces and becoming an atheist. I think he is in real danger.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, she says,

Were Bell to frame this simply as a thought experiment with no repercussions for his spiritual life, we could send him on his merry way, stacks of Dawkins and Darwin in hand. But he argues the Seventh-day Adventist teachings and conservative worldview of his church drove him to consider atheism in both thought and practice.

(While I don't understand this endeavor, I don't mean to pass judgment. I am not him, I am not in his shoes, and I trust that he knows his inner life and relationship to God much better than I ever could. Perhaps this is a needed step in Bell's journey toward God. God has used stranger and more terrible things to draw people from distance to intimacy.)

Dr. Craig: Baloney! I pass judgment on it.[2] This is madness spiritually speaking, to think that you can sincerely embark on disbelieving in God and living out consistently the consequences of atheism. What about all these people that God would have had him pray for during that year? What about the people in the church community of which he is supposed to be a member that he should have been serving and helping during that year? What this means is that he will not be exercising his spiritual gifts in the context of the local body of believers. So it will be impaired by the improper functioning of that body. This is spiritually disastrous. Laura should not be so reticent to pass judgment on the folly, and I would say the moral wrongness, of what Bell is purporting to do especially if he embarks on a life of sin because he doesn’t believe God doesn’t exist.

Kevin Harris: It gets back to what you said earlier in one of our podcasts, Bill: to be neutralized, to be paralyzed, as a follower of Jesus Christ is a very great victory for the enemy.

Dr. Craig: Oh, that’s right. This is worse than neutralized. If this man really does consistently live out an atheistic lifestyle it could do irreparable harm to the Christian church. Will he now, for example, begin to refute Christians when they share the Gospel and become part of that unbelieving sub-culture that seeks to persuade others to give up their belief in God? If he is serious about this, I wonder if he really understands what the consequences are going to be.

Kevin Harris: And Laura, as she’s trying not to pass judgment, “Well, maybe this is a needed step in the journey?” I tell you, Bill, not everything could be looked on as a needed step. Sometimes horrible things happen and the Bible promises that God will work all things together for your good but that is not to say that self-imposed sin is just maybe a necessary step for you. You know what I mean?

Dr. Craig: Or that it becomes a good thing. Even if in the end, say, God uses this in his life because, say, he bottoms out during this year and he comes to realize the unlivability of atheism and the horrible consequences of a world in which God doesn’t exist, and God uses that to bring him back to faith and perhaps a more vital relationship with God, that doesn’t mean that therefore the things that he did during that year were good things, like ceasing to pray, ceasing to give to the support of missions, ceasing to serve in his church and serve others, obey the Golden Rule, and so forth. Those are still evil. Those are still sin. But it may be in the end that God was able to use sin and evil to bring about a good end. But we shouldn’t think that therefore the things that one did along the way become good things. They are still evil.

Kevin Harris: Like you would say, “Since God is going to work all things together for my good, I’m going to go ahead and commit this sin.” Doesn’t Paul say something along the lines of “Heaven forbid, make not be?”

Dr. Craig: We should not sin that grace may abound.[3] That’s right.

Kevin Harris: Well, anyway, yeah, I knew there were some problems with this.

Dr. Craig: I am just astonished sometimes, Kevin, at the incredible immaturity of some people that they would do such a thing as this man envisions, except that I suspect, as I say, that this isn’t just an experiment – that he is, in fact, slipping away and is in real danger spiritually speaking.

Kevin Harris: She goes on to say,

Bell has lost his jobs at Christian schools and consulting for a church as a result of his journey into atheism. In a blog post about the process, he said that deans at Azusa—where he taught intercultural communications—and Fuller Seminary—where he coached doctoral students on their dissertation proposals—“encouraged me and said they felt my project was bold and even important and necessary.”

So he was counseled that this was bold.

Dr. Craig: That’s unconscionable that they would not warn him of the dangers to his own spiritual life of doing what he contemplates. How can people seriously think that ceasing to exercise your God-given responsibilities and the moral duties that God gives you, such as “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your strength, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” that flouting your moral duties to God, is a good and bold thing to do?[4] It is just foolishness.

Kevin Harris: He is getting applauded by the atheist blogosphere as you can imagine, Bill. The Friendly Atheist, he set up a fund raising page to help Bell cover costs while he discerns his next step. I laugh rather in mirth, not because it is so funny. She writes,

I wish Bell well on this year of atheism, and I hope it brings him a deeper sense of understanding and clarity, and I do hope he finds compassion and joy in the church as well as without. But the repercussions of his speaking out make perfect sense to me, too. I'll just have to wait for the book.

Dr. Craig: And it sounds as if he plans to profit off this venture by writing a book! Oh my goodness, if there are mercenary motivations behind this, again, what does that say about the spirituality of the endeavor that you are going to write a book about it? It just astonishes me. I’m reading here Kevin the article that she wrote and it says here he draws some conclusions about his firing from these Christian institutions and he says,

“Religions institutions . . . are not able to endure these probing questions from their public leaders.”

That is nonsense. Places like Azusa Pacific and Fuller encourage these sorts of probing, sincere questions, but they don’t want someone apostatizing and abandoning his faith and living as an atheist while claiming to be directing students and teaching students at a Christian institution.

Kevin Harris: The Friendly Atheist says,

As someone who criticized his methodology, I still admire the fact that he’s putting his beliefs under scrutiny. Places of higher learning including Christian ones ought to encourage these sorts of experiments, not run away from them. As an atheist, I want Bell to know that we appreciate what he is trying to do and that we will support him even if his Christian community will not.

Dr. Craig: How noble.

Kevin Harris: “More importantly, even if he decides atheism isn’t for him when the year is over.” Again, the ramifications of the atheism-theism debate are so huge, philosophically and existentially important, that it is not just something you decide whether it is for you or not. That is what I’ve been trying to say, Bill. Whether you are a Republican or Democrat, or whether you like chocolate or vanilla, or whether you like sports or you don’t, well, it’s not for me. But this defies that shallow of an analysis. Do you know what I’m trying to say?

Dr. Craig: I think I do. In other words, you are saying that he is treating this as though it were a question of what suits his personal preferences and fancy, sort of like being a member of a club or an organization rather than asking what is the objective truth about reality. I mean, there is nothing in here about how he is going to use this year to explore whether or not it is true that God exists. It is more about how does he enjoy that lifestyle, whether or not it suits him. And that is, as you say, to treat religion as though it is a matter of taste rather than a matter of fact. My concern, though, is deeper than that. My concern for him is personal and pastoral. I think he is embarking on a path that is spiritual detrimental because – and I hope our listeners understand this – he is plunging himself into evil. We have a moral duty toward God – to love him with all our heart, and strength, and mind, to obey his commandments. That means to seek him in prayer, to have a devotional life, to be part of a local body of believers where we are using our gifts to serve others and to build up the body of Christ, to exercise our spiritual gifts in such a context. These are not optional for the Christian. These are essential to the Christian life. What he is proposing to do is to embark on a lifestyle that for him is profoundly evil. If he comes to believe, as I think he ought, that on atheism there really are no objective moral values and duties, then who knows what sort of deleterious moral atrocities he could involve himself in.[5] The question there is, does he truly understand the consequences philosophically of atheism as opposed to theism? Does he think that you could just sort of remove this one element of your web of beliefs without any repercussions upon the remainder of the web or upon your lifestyle? Can you just sort of quit going to church as you quit going to the Rotary Club and everything else remains the same? I think that is to fail to understand the profound consequences of belief in God or belief in atheism.

Kevin Harris: There is a note of sarcasm when I say this but there are better ways, Mr. Bell, to being mad at a church administration than denying your Savior.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, it really does show enormous immaturity, I think, to respond to what might have been an abusive situation in his local church by throwing the baby out with the bathwater.[6]



[1] Laura Turner, “The Problem With Trying On Atheism,” Christianity Today, January 2014. See http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2014/january/problem-with-trying-on-atheism.html (accessed March 24, 2014).

[2] 5:08

[3] cf. Romans 6:1-2

[4] 10:19

[5] 15:03

[6] Total Running Time: 16:26 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)